The Incorruptible God: Corruption, Mortality and the Triumph of Paul's Eschatology

Only in Paul's epistles do we have the Greek word ἀφθαρσία (aftharsia). Many believe it refers to 'immortality' and has been translated as such in numerous Bible translations. However, there is reason to expand the semantic range of this word to include concepts of "imperishability" or "incorruptibility." I will walk through several of Paul's epistles, and we will see that this word has an eschatological flavor—not because of the word itself per se, but because of how Paul uses the word.

I will translate the following Pauline texts, with some commentary on why I chose to render certain terms in the way I do, and then I will explain the significance of the word in Paul's narrative. Finally, I will attempt a synthesis on why this word is important and what it means for Christians today.

Also, Merry Christmas.

Rom 2:7 τοῖς μὲν καθ᾽ ὑπομονὴν ἔργου ἀγαθοῦ δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν ζητοῦσιν ζωὴν αἰώνιον·

"And those who persevere by good work, seeking glory and honor and incorruptibility, will gain life eternal"

The noun ὑπομονὴν refers to 'perseverance,' especially within certain Pauline contexts. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:4 refers to those enduring διωγμοῖς ("persecution") and θλίψεσιν ("oppression"). Paul elsewhere tells the church to "pursue" (δίωκε) good things in 1 Timothy 6:11—among these attributes is ὑπομονήν. The conjunction καὶ linking δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν suggests these attributes are a unit, or at least are meant to be taken as a single concept. Glory and honor are comparable to incorruptibility, and if one seeks after these things, there is "life eternal."

Immortality, while a likely facet of incorruptibility, is too narrow here. Rather, glory and honor suggest a kind of virtue that lacks corruptibility, especially of the human (Gentile) person not identified by the sins of Romans 1:18-32. 

1Cor 15:42 Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ·

"In this same way also the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption."

Most of the uses of our noun in question occur in the discourse of 1 Corinthians 15.

The verbal linkage is fairly obvious with the contrast: both verbs (singular third person middle) refer to an object via the preposition ἐν ("in," "by," "among"). The contrast is highlighted by the comparative noun φθορᾷ, which in other contexts refers to slavery (Romans 8:21) and general depravity and destructive tendencies (Colossians 2:22). Paul seems to imply that the human person—the body—is born into a world of depravity and subjection by foreign powers (Death and Sin being two sides of that coin: c.f. 15:26), and instead of the person in Christ being raised again into corruption and death, she is raised instead to incorruptibility. Mortality, driven by the kingship of Death, is what is sown naturally according to the known rules of the world.

However, for Paul, to be raised by Christ is to participate in his incorruptible body: where glory and honor and an inability to be subjected to Death's reign.

We will see a further Pauline contrast in 15:50 and 53.

1Cor 15:50, 53, 54 Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ…δεῖ γὰρ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀθανασίαν. ὅταν δὲ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ ⸃ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀθανασίαν, τότε γενήσεται ὁ λόγος ὁ γεγραμμένος· Κατεπόθη ὁ θάνατος εἰς νῖκος.

"But this I say, my brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood is unable to inherit the Kingdom of God, not can corruption inherit incorruption…for it is necessary for this corruption to put on incorruptibility and this Mortal to put on immortality, but whenever this corruption should have put on incorruptibility, and this Mortal should have put on incorruptibility, then this word that has been written will come to pass: Death has been devoured in victory."

Whole monographs could be written on this particular section, and I believe it is a concretized exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:26, where Death is utterly annihilated. However, some exposition is needed. The contrastive nature of φθορά and ἀφθαρσία confirms Paul's distinction between a present reality (φθορά) guided by the dictatorship of Death, and Paul's hope in ἀφθαρσία, where Death cannot exercise rule over any Mortal.

Paul uses similar words that are complementary, but they are not synonymous. He uses ἀθανασίαν which does refer to immortality (literally 'not dying'), which displays an affinity with his chosen vocabulary. The corruptible Mortal must be clothed in both incorruptibility and immortality, in order that both concepts may abolish Death. One can be immortal, and still sin, at least in theory. However, to be incorruptible suggests that the future eschatological age is a place where all of those in Christ are in a state of 'not dying' and also in a state of being unable to be corrupted by Sin and Death.

No longer does Death reign, nor will Death have any presence in God's Kingdom. Rather, the mortal person, she is enveloped by Christ in the power of the Spirit, where Death has no sting.

Eph 6:24 ἡ χάρις μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἀγαπώντων τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ.

"Favor be with all of the one's who are loving our Lord Jesus Christ in incorruptibility."

Paul ends his exhortation to the church with battle imagery earlier in chapter 6. Paul, here, is capitalizing on said imagery and exhorting the believers to remain incorruptible. Instead of referring in a blanket sense to immortality, Paul desires that they live a life "loving" God and the Messiah. This is characterized by εἰρήνη ("peace") in 6:23, and suggests that warfare, spiritual or literal, should not characterize the believer's identity: for these things corrupt, but faithfulness to God is incorruptible.

2Ti 1:10 φανερωθεῖσαν δὲ νῦν διὰ τῆς ἐπιφανείας τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ⸃, καταργήσαντος μὲν τὸν θάνατον φωτίσαντος δὲ ζωὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν διὰ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου,

"And made manifest now through the appearance of our Savior Jesus Christ, the one indeed annihilating Death, and having illuminated life and incorruptibility through the Gospel."

The theophany of the Messiah signals something interesting. Life and incorruptibility are connected (same case ending) and suggest, in already similar fashion, that Paul is playing these terms together in a complementary way. To have the life of Christ is to have incorruptibility. Death being utterly annihilated, removed from the cosmos, suggests that now life and incorruptibility may reign. Only once Death has been destroyed can these two things thrive. This suggests a coordinate meaning with 1 Corinthians 15, where Death/Mortality/Corruption are first destroyed, so that Life/Immortality/Incorruptibly may reign supreme in the Kingdom of God and Christ.

Tit 2:7 περὶ πάντα σεαυτὸν παρεχόμενος τύπον καλῶν ἔργων, ἐν τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ ἀφθορίαν, σεμνότητα,

"In all things making yourself a model of good works by teaching, incorruptibility, dignity."

In a short word, this pericope is concerned with how one lives as a minority within a world of oppression. By living in a manner worthy of the name of Christ, one must live by these three nouns (though one is not limited by them). I translate the preposition ἐν as "by" because I think the active agency on the part of the recipients of Titus are enjoined to live a certain way: hence, make yourself a model "by" doing these three things.

Immortality, unlike elsewhere, is not in view in most of Paul's uses of ἀφθαρσία. Rather, the noun in question refers to the conduct and character of one's witness to the world: not being guided by corruption or falsity, but rather through the incorruptibility of Christ.

In short, the term ἀφθαρσία, while it may denote a concept of immortality, is far more concerned with the character of how one lives, and what one inherits. Incorruptibility refers to something given by God eschatologically, it must be sought after (Romans 2:7), and Death and depravity are the chief opponents to this ἀφθαρσία. Death, with its reign of decay and slavery, cannot co-exist with ἀφθαρσία. Only one may win, and one might say, one already has.

Thus, ἀφθαρσία has an ethical component that cannot be ignored or dismissed. Eschatology, at least in Pauline perspective, is about ethics and the life of hope lived for future anticipation.

Merry Christmas again.

NQ

Why Romans 7:7-25 is not about You: Paul, Adam, and "Speech-in-Character"

When I was doing a bunch of exegetical work in Romans, I came across Ben Witherington's commentary and read his comments concerning the perplexing language Paul uses in chapter 7. I had always been bothered by the language of 7:7-25 because it seemed quite unPauline and I saw it adopted by pastors in order to experience what a famous scholar said "the introspective conscience of the West" (Stendhal). Instead of Romans 7 being about this modern introspection, Paul was doing something completely different. Believing I had discovered something new (always a bad thing to assume in the work of New Testament scholarship, but hey), I ran to my wife and explained it to her.

A minute later, she nodded and said something to the effect of, "yeah, when I was in undergrad I randomly read a book on ancient rhetoric and Romans 7 fit that. Yup. Its Adam."

So, in order to briefly argue my point, I am going to offer several reasons why I think Paul is using prosopopoeia ("speech-in-character") in Romans 7:14-25. This post is not exhaustive, of course, but it seems to be the best option out of many. Others have proposed Israel as the voice, humanity as a whole, Jews as a whole, Gentiles as a whole, and other Christians who struggle with sin. I suspect it is none of these.

Stanley Stowers (Toward a Rereading of Romans, 16-21 specifically) explains προσωποποιία as "a rhetorical literary technique in which the speaker or writer produces speech that represents not himself or herself but another person or type of character" (pp.16-17). Stowers argues that Romans 2:1-5, 3:1-9, 3:31-4:2 and 7:7-8:2 are best read as προσωποποιία. He also notes that προσωποποιία is often in the first person singular (p.20).

Witherington (hereafter BW3: Paul's Letter to the Romans, 180) states ""Since the important work of W.G. Kümmel on Romans 7, it has become a common, perhaps even majority, opinion in some NT circles that the 'I' of Romans 7 is autobiographical." Given how Paul speaks about the law in Galatians 2:11-14 and Philippians 3:1-11, it seems safe to say he did (or more accurately, "does") not have a major problem with the Jewish law. BW3 rightly then says that this does not tell us "who" the voice of Romans 7 is.

Instead of autobiography, BW3 offers us Adam in Romans 7.

Regarding typology and sequence, one needs to offer some sort of lens or person in which they can speak. The last person Paul has talked about is Adam in Romans 5:12-21—this of course assumes that Paul is not speaking of the inner turmoil of Jesus in Romans 7! For instance, Jesus had the Law—Adam did not. Adam was "separate" (χωρὶς) from the Law (singular: νόμου) in 7:9. However, Adam did have a singular commandment, and it was not the Mosaic Law.

Adam did not know about lust or sin before the Fall (7:7), and because of the primordial couple's sin, Sin came to life (ἀνέζησεν: 7:9)

Second, Sin is personified here as it was in 5:12-21. For instance, ἡ ἁμαρτία ("Sin") is active in "accomplishing" something in Adam (κατειργάσατο) in 7:8 and this Sin kills in 7:11 (ἀπέκτεινεν). It is unlikely that this could be referring to Israel or to Paul or even to the believers, but it makes sense under an Adamic paradigm. The reason why it most probably does not refer to the believer is the comment in 8:1: Οὐδὲν ἄρα νῦν κατάκριμα τοῖς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ("Now then there is no condemnation to the ones in Christ Jesus").

If one adopts the Adamic reading as opposed to the other readings (which are legion), then one may find themselves identifying with Adam. The purpose of προσωποποιία is for the audience to find themselves in a specific line of dialogue or monologue, to understand the deep contrast between life and death that characterizes Adam and Christ.

7:24: τίς με ῥύσεται ἐκ τοῦ σώματος τοῦ θανάτου τούτου ("Who shall rescue me from this body of Death?") Adam's introduction of Death gave birth to the human condition of Sin. We are born into sin, although whether or not we are guilty of Adam's sin is a concept not apparent in Romans 5-7.

Paul is not speaking about the person's inability to follow the Law, or about your sin, or my sin, or your mother's sin, or anything like that. He is using Adam as a rhetorical device to assert that a former state is now undone. Because one is in Christ, condemnation is now a relic. Having been rescued from the Adamic state of Death and Sin and utter destruction, we now have life in Christ and in the Spirit (c.f. Romans 8:1-11). Adam is the contrast to the new life that we have in Christ.

Christ is bigger than Adam, and Paul's use of προσωποποιία showcases his remarkable rhetoric and his incisive analysis of the ones apart from Christ, destined for death and slavery, and the ἐλευθερόω ("liberation") by Christ from the law of sin and Death (Romans 8:2). Instead of those formerly in Adam being condemned, Sin itself is condemned (κατέκρινε: 8:3) as we walk now in the "Spirit" (πνεῦμα).

Read Romans 7:7-25 with Adamic eyes and see for yourself. There are other options, but given the context and nature of ancient rhetoric, Adam seems to be the best exemplar of Paul's language.

More could be said, but check out BW3 commentary or his long blog post based on a paper he gave in 2013 which covers this ground is more detail. He has me convinced!

NQ

The Conundrum of Christ's Faithfulness: A Brief Introduction of the "Πίστις Χριστοῦ" Debate and its Implications

In the often contentious world of Pauline studies, one of the major debates that has been raging concerns a specific grammatical phrase: Πίστις Χριστοῦ ("the faith of Christ" or "faith in Christ"). Πίστις is the normative Pauline word for 'faith' or 'trust.' Χριστοῦ is the genitive form of Christ, or "Messiah." So when you see either term used hereafter, that is what they mean.

There are generally two options for Pauline interpreters:

  • The objective genitive: "faith in Christ."

  • The subjective genitive: "the faith of Christ."

What is curious about this entire debate is that it transcends the so-called New Perspective/Old Perspective divide and also transcends the Reformed/Arminian debate as well. For example, James D.G. Dunn (objective) and N.T. Wright (subjective) disagree with one another on this, and both also differ on their traditions. Dunn is a Methodist and Wright is a Calvinist. So this debate is not about one's soteriology or traditions per se.

So this is a debate I recently came into contact with during a Directed Study with Tommy Givens. Both Banning and Chad also are swimming in it, and this is due to our reading John Barclay who briefly covers the debate.

Many Pauline texts are involved in this. Some of these texts are more debated than others, specifically the texts in Romans and Galatians. I suspect this is mostly due to Romans and Galatians being given undue priority in the study of Paul, but that's my own snarky hang up.

Here are the main representative texts:

  • Romans 3:22—" διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"

  • Galatians 2:16—"διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"

  • Galatians 3:22—"ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"

  • Galatians 3:26—"διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ"

  • Philippians 3:9—"διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ"

In all of these examples, we have a specific preposition: διὰ ("through," or "by means of") and ἐκ ("from," or "by") that precedes the genitive nouns, clarifying the nouns. In two instances we have an additional preposition ἐν ("in," or "by" sometimes). In each instance, the debate comes down to intricate grammatical arguments that sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees. In any sense, as I look over these various papers and presentations, I am left with a thought:

Why is this significant? Why have entire books been written on this particular phrase?

Much of the debate boils down to the particular emphasis of the noun πίστεως. Whose faith is Paul usually concerned with? Sometimes it is Christ's faith (Rom. 3:22; Phil. 3:9) and other times Paul clarifies after with our faith (Gal. 2:20). He does this specifically in Colossians 1:4 ("ἀκούσαντες τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ: having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus"). Christ is the lens or matrix by which faith is given, but the participatory nature of faith requires our partaking of Christ's faith.

So with many issues in Paul, it is not an 'either/or.' Christ's faith is sometimes emphasized but an emphasis on Christ's faith does not negate or obliterate the faith of believers. Neither does a person's faith in Christ render faith 'anthropocentric,' as Christ is the one in whom we believe.

What is at stake?

What is as stake is how Paul emphasizes one and the other, and how we too should emphasize either option, not to the exclusion of both but in balance. For my money, I lean toward the subjective genitive for most of these texts, but I also believe one must exercise the gift of faith, and any emphasis to the exclusion of either option simply leaves one divorced from the richness of Paul's language. The human person is freed to participate in Christ, and if Paul chooses to emphasize our participation, so be it.

For a helpful book that goes over this debate, see Bird and Sprinkle.

NQ